House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Private Members’ Business

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day

Debate resumed, on motion by Mrs Gash:

That the House:

the growing acceptance of 15 October in Australia as the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day;
that this day is officially recognised in the United States and Canada; and
that this day is only informally celebrated in Australia;
calls on the government to consider the adoption of 15 October each year as the Official Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day; and
recognises the efforts of Nicole Ballinger in promoting the official adoption of this day by Australia.

7:21 pm

Photo of Joanna GashJoanna Gash (Gilmore, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism) Share this | Hansard source

The death of a child at any age is an emotionally debilitating family event, especially for the mother. Equally devastating is infant loss through miscarriage, stillbirth or other perinatal events. The grief felt can be profound and, as part of the healing process, acknowledging the event and confronting the grief provides enormous relief. The impact is probably more extensive than the statistics suggest. In Australia, perinatal deaths are something like 4.7 per thousand. In the United States it is just below eight per thousand. In terms of the impact of the event, you need to factor in fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even friends and workplace colleagues. For all intents and purposes, this is post-traumatic stress disorder, whose widespread effects are well documented within the veterans community.

There is a growing acceptance in Australia to adopt 15 October as the official day to acknowledge pregnancy and infant loss. It is already widely accepted unofficially in Australia. The United States and Canada recognise this day officially and in late 2008, Shelley Hancock, of the New South Wales parliament, moved in favour of calling on their government to consider adopting the date in the state’s calendar. I believe there are moves afoot in other legislatures in Australia to adopt this date within their jurisdictions.

What has brought me to move this motion was one of my constituents, Nicole Ballinger, who has experienced multiple miscarriages, and Nicole and Richard are here in the chamber tonight. Nicole came to me because she wanted something done. After the first miscarriage, she and her husband tried a number of remedies. She met regularly with a grief counsellor and complied with the suggestions that were given. She and her husband named the baby, planted a tree in the baby’s honour, wrote a memorial and made other gestures of grief. They did that with each subsequent loss, but the black dog of depression stayed with her.

The 18th century psychologist GH Lewes said that the only cure for grief is action. With that view, Nicole resolved that depression was not going to beat her. She continued her research in an attempt to overcome the blight. Like most Australians, she turned to the net and soon found people on a blog site with shared experiences. Although she participated only a couple of times each week, she soon found that the process was cathartic. She found that the intensity of her grief was lessening. She found that in the course of about eight months she was blogging, and she was coming out of the process at a much faster rate than the previous 3½ years since her first miscarriage.

I asked Nicole to journalise her experience so that I could relay her story to the House. With time constraints I cannot do her story the justice it deserves, but I would like to quote just a single paragraph as a way of emphasising the clinical value of having an official day of acknowledgement. This is what she wrote:

So what made the difference?

Certainly part of it was the passing of time as well, as the fifth miscarriage had not occurred in the meantime. I’m also convinced that I began to heal through identification with others and the normalisation of my trauma.

I shared my story with those on the blog board and was overwhelmed by the amount of care and empathy that I was given. Then other people joined the board, some of whom were in the throes of fresh raw grief having just lost their baby. So I began giving these women what I could, sharing my own experience and hope, encouraging them to ‘hang in there’ because some of them even expressed suicidal tendencies.

Nicole and her husband went on to launch an information based website with both professional and lay contributions, and she has approached her state and federal members of parliament.

This proposal for a pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day is not just a sentimental gesture; there are clinical and therapeutic benefits to be had, and that is why I am calling on the government to support the community and formally adopt this date as a gazetted day of remembrance. How many women out there are confronting a miscarriage, thinking they are alone, when they do not have to be? This day will help reinforce the assurance that theirs is a shared experience, and, like Nicole, who blogged with other women, the sharing of the experience will help rescue them from the depression that inevitably grips the victim.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.’ Nicole has found a way of moving forward. It may not be the way that some choose, but this government can assist the process by raising awareness through the declaration of such a day. I commend the motion to the House, and I thank Nicole and Richard for being here tonight.

7:26 pm

Photo of Sid SidebottomSid Sidebottom (Braddon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you to Joanna for presenting this motion to the House, and in particular to Nicole and Richard—thank you for being here and thank you for doing what you are doing. This is personally difficult for me as well, but I suppose I want to demonstrate the importance of what you are doing, because there are so many people that have been affected by pregnancy loss, stillbirths and child death soon after birth. Some of the facts that have been presented by Nicole and Richard—you mentioned that men feel it deeply as well—are that in the developed world one in three pregnancies ends in loss, one in four women have lost a baby, one in 2,000 babies die not long after birth, one in every 48 babies is stillborn and 500,000 miscarriages take place every year. One in three women in Australia in their thirties who have given birth have also had a miscarriage. So it is something that a lot of people experience. In many cases they remain silent about it, but it is very useful for people to be able to share their experiences with each other and to know that you are not alone in your grief, and that it continues for much longer than you think.

On 4 February 1984, my wife, Bronwyn, and I lost our son Christopher, who was born premature. There was no support at all. When Bronwyn was brought in in early labour, there was no attempt to fly her to Hobart for intensive care. There was no humidicrib; it was removed. We were basically told little. Christopher was born. We spent time with Christopher. He was alive and we held him. In our ignorance, we did not know what was happening. We were told little. Christopher was taken away and we never heard what happened, how he died. Unfortunately, Christopher had an IUD lodged in him as an embryo. We were not advised that that could have been removed earlier. But anyway he was born with that. We were told he was infected. He looked beautiful, irrespective of me, and he died soon after, about an hour after. I remember it being about 2.30 in the morning; as I was leaving, in grief, they ran after me in the corridor and asked me to sign a death certificate.

The next day I came to see Bron. They had taken her out of the maternity area and had her in the general ward. She did not understand what had happened. We left together. There was no counselling or referral to anyone. We buried Christopher alone. We were told we could not have children again. Gracefully and mercifully, we were told that Bron could go on an IVF program. When she did finally front up for it they said, ‘We cannot help you because you’re pregnant.’ This was in 1986, so we lived with this from 1984 to 1986. Our son Julian was born on 26 June 1986. He looked just like Christopher, so I know what Christopher would have looked like as he grew up. Our other beautiful son William was born on 6 May 1988.

I will support this motion any way I can. We had no support. Others will have support and do now, which is terrific. Thank you for the terrific job you are doing and thank you for helping me remember.

7:31 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) Share this | Hansard source

This sort of motion reminds us how human we as politicians, constituents and clerks are. The loss of a baby is so profound. None of us should ever forget the sorrow of others or our own personal loss. I commend Joanna Gash, the member for Gilmore, for putting this motion to us in the House and for bringing with her Nicole Ballinger, her partner and friends. Through Nicole we can perhaps do something more, and that is officially recognise Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, like they do in the United States and Canada.

The previous speaker, the member for Braddon, and the member for Gilmore have reminded us how often there is a miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a baby shortly after birth. There is an extraordinary number. In Australia perhaps 15 to 20 per cent of babies are miscarried, for example—and that is of known pregnancies. Of course, there are probably many more.

Just as Sid has said, many decades ago it was a case of: ‘Forget it. You have lost the baby, yes, but go home. Get on with your life. Perhaps you have other children to think about. Certainly, do not expect much more from the health sector, for example.’ There was no encouragement of photos, flowers, a service or the naming of the child. No doubt that led to more grief and a wondering if the mother and father—and perhaps the brothers, sisters and grandparents—were the only ones who really cared. This official Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day would give the whole community the sense that we all do care about those babies, those little boys and girls, who did not start life or whose life ended too soon.

I think of my own daughter, who had a series of miscarriages. We had the joy of thinking that the first ultrasound would give us the gender of the baby, but instead there was no heartbeat. It was very sad. But, as we have said, the family together can grieve, can think of that loss and can think about the potential joy of other children or about the joy of others who are already born.

It is very important, for example, in relation to paid parental leave policy, which the Labor Party has identified as commencing in 2011, that there is recognition of a stillborn baby and that the parents will be eligible for paid parental leave. I think that is a very important and humane thing to do. Certainly the coalition will echo that sentiment or that need because, of course, parents who have lost a baby deserve, should have and would need that parental leave just as if the baby had survived.

So I think this is a most important policy area. I want to say too that we should be thinking about families where babies have been lost in other countries where, clearly, too often the women have not had sufficient maternal health care, and where babies are more likely to be lost because of problems with nutrition or war or violence or extraordinary catastrophe. I understand there are 65,000 pregnancies and 7,000 babies due to be born in Haiti in the coming month or so, and those mothers and those babies will have an extraordinary time surviving.

We as a country should grieve the loss of our own babies and those of others. We should understand that in some sectors of the community there is more likely to be a loss than in others, and I am thinking of Indigenous women in our community. We have got to make sure that we do all we can to support families and mothers in those circumstances. There is no doubt that grieving together, identifying your loss and having the community understand your loss must help in that grieving process. I again commend Nicole and the Ballingers for promoting the official adoption of this day in Australia. I certainly commend this motion to the House. It is one humane thing that we can do in Australia when too often in this parliament we do not think of humanity but, instead, contest. This is about humanity and loving one another, and I certainly add my weight to commending this motion to the House.

7:36 pm

Photo of David BradburyDavid Bradbury (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I also commend the member for Gilmore for bringing this motion before the House. I am very pleased to be able to speak in support of it. Last year I watched one of my best friends carry a small white coffin in his arms. It was the funeral for his daughter who, days before, had died in utero. He was carrying her out of the church for her final farewell. There was not a dry eye to be found in the church. It was one of the saddest, one of the most moving funerals I have ever attended. She had been the subject of much anticipation, of the excitement of expectant parents and their friends and families.

In January 2009 my wife and our four children had visited our close friends whilst on holidays in Brisbane. We exchanged stories about their hopes for their child and our experiences as young parents. We inspected the nursery. There was such anticipation. But the long lifetime full of rich memories that we envisaged would be ahead of this as yet unborn child would never be realised.

The small white coffin carried in a grieving father’s arms was a heart-wrenching scene. As a person brought up in the Catholic tradition, a funeral in even the most difficult circumstances is a time for celebrating the life of the deceased. But it is not until you attend the funeral of a life that has barely had time to be lived that you realise the depth of the loss that families faced with this reality confront. As my grandfather, who survived one of his own children, once confided in me, ‘There is no greater loss you can feel than attending the funeral of one of your children.’

In Australia in 2007 there were 1,676 deaths of babies at some stage during pregnancy and a further 856 deaths of babies within the first 28 days of life. Each of these deaths represents an enormous tragedy and a grief that we all wish no-one should ever experience. To lose a child, particularly a child who has died at the very beginning of his or her life, is a wound which does not heal for parents, although the hope, the prospect and perhaps even the eventuality of having other children can help parents to again look forward in their lives.

The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day is a day that seeks to recognise the pain and the suffering of those parents who have lost a baby. In the United States of America 15 October is observed as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. For families who have experienced the loss of a baby this day provides a chance to acknowledge the grief of millions of parents and remember and honour the babies lost. People are invited to light a candle at 7.00 pm on 15 October no matter where they are in the world and keep it burning for an hour to create a wave of light across the globe in memory of the babies lost to us.

For my good friends who lost their daughter last year, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day has represented a way to connect with others who have experienced the same grief. My friends recently wrote to me, and I will read their words into the Hansard:

The day we found out our daughter had no heartbeat and had died in utero, a piece of ourselves also died. Our hearts broken. Our dreams shattered. Our lives changed forever. We became part of a select, far too often ignored and hidden community of bereaved parents. Each of us struggling to put our lives back together, to integrate the death of our children into something resembling a normal existence. Every phone call, every message, or simple gesture recognising our daughter as part of our new lives help us move forward in our grief. Last year, we participated in our first IPIL Day and Walk to Remember. Friends, family, and the greater community all coming together to remember and honour the far too many babies’ lives lost. IPIL Day enabled us to feel the love and support of our wider community again.

Words can do so little to soothe the pain that a parent feels at the loss of a baby, but Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day provides a way to share that loss and know that others are walking down the same path. I would like to express my support for this motion and for this remembrance day. There are thousands of parents out there each year who suffer the loss of a baby, and they should know that they are not alone.

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The time allocated for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.